Patients ‘face brain damage’ with ECT rules

RUTH HILL – The Dominion Post Monday, 07 April 2008


Opponents of electric shock therapy say the Government has left vulnerable mental patients at risk of serious brain damage by watering down recommendations to curb its use.


The Government says it has “fully or partially endorsed” seven of the eight recommendations by Parliament’s health select committee – but stopped short of making ECT strictly a treatment of last resort, and has upheld doctors’ rights to overrule patients’ wishes.


The committee’s report stemmed from a 2005 petition by Auckland GP Helen Smith, which called for a ban or severe restrictions on the use of ECT on children, pregnant women and the elderly, and stricter regulatory controls, including giving patients the right to refuse.


Dr Smith said many New Zealanders would be horrified to learn that their wishes could be over-ridden by a doctor, when they were older. “In some regions of New Zealand, 60 to 70 per cent of ECT patients have not given their consent … “It’s just as barbaric and damaging as cutting out part of a person’s brain.” 


Clinical psychologist John Read, from Auckland University, said there had not been a single study in 60 years that shows ECT is effective beyond three or four weeks, and plenty of studies that show it causes memory loss and brain damage. He also had major concerns about the process, which he said had been hijacked by a clique of pro-ECT psychiatrists within the Health Ministry. “The Government has received biased advice, completely without basis in clinical evidence.” 


Hamilton nurse Anna de Jonge, who started the original 1999 petition calling for ECT to be banned, said the Government’s response was a whitewash. “Nothing has changed – they are still able to shock old women, pregnant women and children. It’s torture, it’s what they do to animals in the slaughterhouse.”


Mrs de Jonge said, through her work with the Patients Rights Advocacy group, she had met many people destroyed by ECT. “Women get shocked far more than men; they fry their brains till they don’t know if they are Arthur or Martha and then they lock them up in rest homes till they die.”


Mental health advocate Mary O’Hagan, a former mental health commissioner, said opinion on ECT was polarised – even among patients. “I’ve heard some people say it was a lifeline … but in the history of psychiatry, there have been many treatments that are now considered barbaric, like lobotomies and insulin shock treatment.”

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